The nation has the chance to vote for another Bush now that Jeb has declared his candidacy for president. Though his last name is one of the most famous in the country, much of the conventional wisdom about Bush is wrong, starting with his first name. (It’s actually John, not Jeb.) Here are five other myths about the third child of George and Barbara.
1. Jeb Bush is a moderate.
“Republican vanilla” was how Henry Olsen put it in National Review. Others have described Bush’s “ ‘very conservative’ problem” (National Journal), the right’s “wary” response to his candidacy (the Boston Globe), and similarities between him and Hillary Clinton (Laura Ingraham, who said they could “run on the same ticket”). At the heart of Bush’s supposedly moderate ideology: his support for Common Core and immigration reform.
While some conservatives disagree over those two issues, almost nothing in Bush’s record as governor suggests he’s a moderate. The notion puzzles Floridians who watched him govern for eight years, during which he pushed to disrupt public schools by establishing vouchers, grading schools and student performance, and creating charter schools. He reduced the size of state government, promoted tax cuts for the wealthy, passed tough-on-crime bills and bragged about helping Florida have more concealed-weapon permits than other states.
When Bush left office, “he was widely, unanimously, unambiguously regarded as the most conservative governor in the United States,” according to Steve Schmidt, who was Sen. John McCain’s senior campaign adviser in the 2008 presidential race. Darryl Paulson, a professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida, said, “He governed as a conservative, and everyone in the Florida Republican Party considered him a conservative.” Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell stated it more bluntly: “a union-busting, school-voucher-promoting, tax-cutting, gun-loving, Terri Schiavo-interfering, hard-core conservative.”
2. George is the dumb one, Jeb is the smart one.
“When we first started doing [George W.] Bush on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” former head writer Adam McKay told the New York Times, “the ‘Bush is dumb’ joke was too good.”
While George’s unique way with words launched a thousand late-night jokes, Jeb emerged as the “smart one.” Last year, the Times described the younger Bush’s reputation thusly: “an intellectual in search of new ideas, a serial consulter of outsiders who relishes animated debate and a probing manager who eagerly burrows into the bureaucratic details.”
George the bumbler, Jeb the thinker. Got it. But some who worked in the Bush White House say the perception that Jeb is smarter may have more to do with style than with substance.
George’s persona is often one of swagger and verbal stumbles. However, Keith Hennessey, former director of Bush’s National Economic Council, argues that “President Bush is extremely smart by any traditional standard. He’s highly analytical and was incredibly quick to be able to discern the core question he needed to answer.”
Meanwhile, Jeb the policy wonk has had his share of gaffes. During the 1994 gubernatorial race, an African American woman asked candidate Bush what he would do for blacks in Florida. Bush answered, “Probably nothing.” The remark followed him through the rest of the campaign.
And last month, Jeb flubbed questions about whether he would have authorized the Iraq war, demonstrating that, like his big brother, he, too, can slip when he speaks.
Bottom line: George and Jeb are two intelligent men who happen to express themselves differently.
3. Bush is Marco Rubio’s mentor.
Last year, National Review asked: “Would a presidential run by his mentor lock Rubio out of the race?” The Times called Rubio the protege of Bush and described the senator’s decision to run as a “Shakespearean turn in a 15-year relationship so close, personal and enduring that friends describe the two men as almost family.”
Both Rubio and Bush live in Miami-Dade County and are heavily immersed in the Hispanic community. As fellow Republicans, they worked together and were politically close as Rubio climbed the ranks of the state House of Representatives, eventually becoming speaker in November 2006. Bush once gave Rubio a samurai sword. But was Rubio really Bush’s protege?
“I wouldn’t diminish the relationship or exaggerate it,” Rubio told The Washington Post in February.
Bush was not a “mentor in the traditional sense,” S.V. Dáte noted in a Politico story that examined the relationship. Dáte also found that Bush’s archived e-mails don’t suggest a bond with Rubio any more special than with other lawmakers, and the men took very different paths, marked by very different styles, to office. One Florida GOP operative told The Post that Rubio respected Bush but was “not necessarily a protege,” and strategist Ana Navarro suggested that a Bush-Rubio matchup “would be less awkward for Jeb and Marco than for a lot of us around them.”
Why the false narrative? A battle between mentor and mentee certainly increases the personal drama of the campaign; “Marco Rubio vs. His Mentor” is a much catchier headline than “Marco Rubio vs. other guy who happens to be from Florida.”
4. Bush will campaign “joyfully.”
Last year, while discussing whether he would run for president, Bush said, “The decision will be based on ‘Can I do it joyfully?,’ because I think we need to have candidates lift our spirits.” He’s apparently decided that yes, he can.
His opponents in his three races for governor would have been delighted to see Bush campaign joyfully. At home, he ran tough races. In 1994, he aired a TV ad accusing Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles of not moving fast enough to execute Larry Mann, the killer of a 10-year-old girl. The spot featured the child’s grieving mother, Wendy Nelson. Chiles “says it can’t be done; we know that it can,” said Cory Tilley, Bush’s spokesman at the time.
The ad led the Sun Sentinel to declare in an editorial that Bush was “showing his utter contempt for the truth, for fair play, for his own party’s Code of Conduct . . . and for the voters he wants to hire him as governor.” (Bush left office in 2007. Mann was executed in 2013.)
In 1998, according to the Los Angeles Times, Bush ads portrayed fiscally conservative Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay “as having spent his 30-year political career trying to push through tax hikes on everything from senior citizens’ income to burglar alarms.” In 2002, Bush called Tampa lawyer Bill McBride, who had never held public office, “a tax-and-spend Democrat, political death in tax-allergic Florida, which still resists a state income tax,” as Time magazine said.
Nothing about Bush’s attack ads was out of the ordinary. And he got hit back just as hard. But it would be a very unusual presidential campaign that did not use negative ads, and the idea that Bush’s team will somehow refrain and embrace “joy” instead is unlikely.
5. He has broad support in Florida.
“Return of the GOP King” was the headline of a January Miami Herald story about the growing Bush campaign machine. Just before Bush formally became a candidate, Florida’s three elected Cabinet officers and 11 of 17 Republicans in the state’s congressional delegation endorsed him. So Bush has Florida sewn up, right?
Not exactly. Despite this establishment support, polls suggest that Bush, who has not been on the ballot in the Sunshine State in 13 years, cannot take Florida for granted. A Mason-Dixon poll from April showed Bush (30 percent) and Rubio (31 percent) essentially tied among Florida Republican voters.
A look at past races suggests that Bush could have a hard time. In 1994, he narrowly lost to Chiles, a reluctant candidate who showed little energy until the end of the campaign. In 1998, MacKay ran a terrible race and, as many Democrats predicted, lost. In 2002, running for a second term, Bush outspent political novice McBride by as much as 4 to 1.
While the latter races offered little resistance, Bush’s toughest test after 1994 was the 2000 presidential campaign. The Bush family had every reason to believe that Jeb would help his brother carry Florida. He did, but only by a very controversial 537 votes.
And much has changed since Bush left the governor’s mansion. One study, as Bloomberg News reported, “found that nearly three-quarters of Florida’s 12.9 million currently registered voters have never even seen Bush’s name on a ballot.”